After a troubled history, Guyana made the most of a first Gold Cup qualification
Cleveland, Ohio. The 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup. In the sweltering heat of a sparsely populated concrete multi- purpose stadium, the 36-year-old Bury midfielder Neil Danns smashes a penalty past the diving Panamanian goalkeeper. Danns, born and raised in Liverpool, celebrates wildly, while Sam Cox, Matthew Briggs and Elliott Bonds, all proud Londoners, swiftly follow behind him. None of these players are anywhere near home. They are just some of the seven English-born players in the starting line-up who have taken the remarkable journey to represent the country of their forefathers: Guyana.
Guyana is a peculiar country, an anomaly on the world map. Located in South America, it is the only English-speaking nation on the continent. Formerly a collection of Dutch colonies that were taken over by the British, it was united as one nation in 1831. For that reason it is categorised as a Caribbean country for its colonial links with nearby islands, yet the Amazonian landscape and lack of sandy beaches makes the country physically very different to the traditional tourist havens associated with the rest of the region. As a result, Guyana is a member of Concacaf rather than Conmebol.
Covered largely by sprawling rainforest, Guyana has a population of just under 800,000. The demographics are also unique for a Caribbean nation: roughly 40 per cent of Guyana’s population is of ‘East Indian’ origin; descendants of the many indentured labourers convinced by the British to leave India and cut sugar in the Caribbean after the abolition of slavery in 1836 forced the Empire to seek other ways of getting the work done. Afro-Guyanese, Chinese, Portuguese and Amerindians form the remainder of the population, leading to a diverse society that celebrates Diwali and Eid as passionately as Christmas Day.
In 1966, Guyana (then known as British Guiana) celebrated independence. Previous flirtations with socialism had meant the USA, worried about the country’s proximity to communist Cuba, intervened and helped to install a leader who supported their agenda. Over the years, slowly but surely as an economy based on the export of Demerara sugar and El Dorado rum stalled, the population drained from Guyana, with most settling in England, USA and Canada. This brain drain created a significant Guyanese diaspora across the world which would pave the way for the success of the football team many years later.
A dark undertone lingers amid the vastness of the forests. It currently has the highest suicide rate in the world, while the most famous global event it is associated with is the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, when the cult leader Jim Jones and more than 900 of his followers died in a mass murder-suicide pact.
In sporting terms, cricket rules the roost, with the likes of the former West Indies captain Clive Lloyd and batsman Shivnarine Chanderpaul the country’s most famous stars. Indeed, the national football team used to play their international matches at the national cricket stadium, Providence, until 2016, with the markings of the cricket pitch often visible. Yet despite the love of cricket, there is a significant footballing legacy: Andrew Watson, the first black player to play international football, for Scotland in 1881, was born in Guyana.
The modern footballing history of the Golden Jaguars begins in 2011, when the former Newcastle United striker Carl Cort was persuaded to join the cause, followed by his younger brother Leon, who was at Charlton Athletic at the time. Carl and Leon Cort were not motivated by financial reward in joining Guyana, the numerous flights it takes to get to the country from Britain renders any sense of glamour obsolete, but the Cort brothers wanted to leave something substantial in their mother’s country.
The increased drive by Guyana to recruit players of Guyanese origin born abroad followed a successful template many others have pursued: Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago had used that policy to qualify for World Cups in 1998 and 2006 respectively. Indeed, Guyana had recruited overseas-born players since 2002, when the midfielder Dean Forbes, at the time playing non- league football for Tooting & Mitcham, joined the national side. Guyana would achieve a Fifa ranking of 86th in 2010 by consistently utilising players who were part of the diaspora, but it was in 2011 that the national programme really began to accelerate.
Joining up with the team in late 2011, the Cort brothers had an instant impact: Guyana topped their 2014 World Cup qualifying group, eliminating Trinidad & Tobago in the process. The team secured a memorable 2-1 victory over the Soca Warriors to seal their progress, with Leon Cort scoring a goal and Ricky Shakes, who has played for Swindon and Brentford, netting the winner. The date of Guyana’s win, 11/11/2011, had enough numerological symbolism to give fans belief that this was the start of something special. Led by a charismatic coach in Jamaal Shabazz, who is from Trinidad, Guyana were beginning to make a mark in the region; yet it was also at this time that the administrative turmoil that would hamper the squad raised its ugly head.
Colin Klass had served as president of the Guyana Football Federation (GFF) since 1989 but in September 2011 he was banned from all football-related activities for having “breached various articles of the Fifa code of ethics” and duly removed from office. Klass had been charged with accepting money in the cash-for-votes scandal that engulfed the Caribbean Football Union and led to the Concacaf vice-president Jack Warner resigning when numerous officials were accused of accepting bribes to back the 2022 Qatari World Cup bid. An interim GFF president was installed and it was against this backdrop that Guyana begun preparations for World Cup qualifiers against El Salvador, Costa Rica and Mexico. Their first game was away to Mexico in the Estadio Azteca and many anticipated a mauling: Guyana, the team made up mostly of semi-professional players, against the strongest side in Concacaf.
“If we don’t think we can win, we might as well pack it in now,” Leon Cort declared in the build up to the Mexico game, his experience of Premier League football meaning he was not daunted by the fixture. “We’re a small country, but we believe.” That belief manifested itself in a credible performance on 8 June 2012, as Guyana lost 3-1 in but gained respect for their determination and disciplined performance. Alongside the Cort brothers and Shakes, there was the captain Christopher Nurse, a former Sutton United player, as well as another set of brothers, Howard and Jake Newton, Hammersmith-born siblings who also played for English non-league sides. Alongside a talented core of local players who had begun earning moves abroad to play professional club football, this side, under the guidance of Shabazz, was performing above all expectations.
Guyana then lost 4-0 to Costa Rica, before earning a 2-2 draw with El Salvador, notable for the 18-year-old local winger Trayon Bobb scoring twice. Sadly, however, the lasting legacy of the qualifiers would come on 2 October 2012, when it was announced that Guyana would not be hosting their return fixture against Mexico, rather they had ‘sold’ the hosting rights to a private company and the game would now be held in Houston, Texas in order to attract a large Mexican crowd. Guyana were subsequently hammered 5-0. The blow of Guyana depriving its fans of the chance to see Mexico live had initially been softened by the news that the GFF stood to make US$1.2m for selling the tie, but years later audits would reveal that they eventually made less than US$75,000 and did not pay the players the bonuses they were promised.
Guyana failed to build on the promise of those qualifiers. They took part in the qualifiers for the 2012 Caribbean Cup, a much-loved regional competition which sadly no longer exists, but failed to make the final tournament. Amid reports of the squad receiving a meagre £10 per day allowance, numerous players went on strike and it was a largely depleted side that whimpered out in the qualifiers. Jamaal Shabazz, the coach who had given his all to the country’s footballing ambitions, resigned, exhausted by what had been a rollercoaster few years.
And then, there was silence.
In April 2013, after more than a year without a permanent federation president, Christopher Matthias was elected to take charge of football in Guyana on a mandate of local development. Information on what exactly the federation was doing became sparse, media releases non-existent and, most worryingly for fans, Guyana’s senior men’s team failed to play a game throughout the whole of 2013.
A no-confidence motion against Matthias was held at a GFF Congress meeting on 26 April 2014, but in dramatic circumstances he survived as president as members of the electoral committee walked out. It was not long after this that Matthias went on national television to outline his vision for development of football in Guyana. With talk of focusing on youth development, Matthias then questioned the necessity of recruiting “foreign” – i.e. overseas-born players to the Guyana set- up, wondering aloud what tangible impact they left behind in Guyana. The interview highlighted how out of touch Matthias was with modern football and by the time 2014 Caribbean Cup qualification came around Guyana had found itself inactive from senior men’s football for the best part of two years.
When Guyana did return to action in October 2014, they took a side which predominantly featured players who featured for Guyanese clubs. The Cort brothers were not selected, and neither were any of the other UK-based players who had featured for the side in recent times. To add further insult, local-based stars such as Gregory ‘Jackie Chan’ Richardson, nicknamed for his nifty footwork, the first-ever Guyanese-born player to feature in MLS, was left out, as was the youngster Trayon Bobb, who had announced himself on the world stage two years earlier against El Salvador. The side representing Guyana did not reflect the best talent available.
Guyana predictably failed to score during the qualifiers and were knocked out after three games. This was the final straw for Matthias. Amid turmoil within the federation’s executive committee, Fifa stepped in and removed Matthias as president within a month of the shambolic qualifiers. A Normalisation Committee, made up of five members with no established footballing links, was installed in November 2014 and Guyana begun the daunting task of trying to rebuild their football programme.
The Normalisation Committee, under a one-year Fifa mandate to restore some sort of stability to football in Guyana, started off by announcing all overseas- based players were welcome to the national side. Shabazz was hired for his third stint as national coach, the defunct domestic league was re-launched to much fanfare and a major sponsorship deal was signed with Admiral clothing. The committee, led by the businessman Clinton Urling, wanted to make a mark on the footballing landscape, leave a legacy and to do that they needed to recruit fresh faces to the national side.
“This is for you, Nan,” Matthew Briggs tweeted in March 2015 alongside a tattoo of Guyana spread across his arm. Briggs was, at the time, holder of the record for youngest ever Premier League player, having just turned 16 when making his debut for Fulham in 2007. Unable to sustain a top-flight career, Briggs was still playing at a high level, featuring at left- back for Millwall in the Championship by 2015. Alongside Neil Danns, who was also in the Championship playing for Bolton, the two committed to turning out for Guyana for their 2018 World Cup qualification campaign.
The players joined the set-up at different stages of their careers: Briggs, aged 24 and out of the Premier League, had been realistic in determining he was unlikely to receive an England call-up. Danns, who was 32 at the time, wanted an international swan song and had been on the radar of the GFF for years. Neither had ever been to Guyana before, so it was decided they would fly out in March 2015, play a friendly against Grenada and get a feel for the country. “It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Briggs said of his first trip to Guyana. “Just amazing.’’
A comfortable 2-0 win suggested things were in place for their two-legged World Cup qualifying tie against St Vincent and the Grenadines in June 2015 and the GFF contacted more UK- based players. One such player, Sam Cox – a product of the Tottenham academy, who played alongside the likes of Harry Kane and Andros Townsend as a teenager – would become instrumental for the national side.
“I look back at my time at Spurs and view it as an unbelievable experience, which I will never forget,” said Cox. “I came into the academy as a schoolboy aged 14 and had five unforgettable seasons at the club. I was offered my first professional contract that season by Harry Redknapp and it was a dream come true.”
Yet, after being released by the club in 2010, Cox found himself playing in the National League for Boreham Wood by 2015. “It was actually an agent I was talking to at the start of the 2014-15 season who asked me what my heritage was,” he said. “After I made him aware that my grandparents were Guyanese he responded by telling me that he is very good friends with someone who works in the GFF.”
Within months Cox was being told he needed a Guyanese passport as he was being called up for the qualifiers against St Vincent: “When I heard the news, I was buzzing. To have the opportunity to represent my heritage and play the game I love on the international stage was a dream.”
Despite the quality of the team, administrative blunders halted their World Cup run: Briggs, Danns and Cox were not able to get Guyanese passports in time, meaning they sat out the first leg. Cox and Danns featured in the second leg after acquiring passports two days before the game but Briggs, who played for England at youth level and did not have permission from the English FA to switch nations, was ruled ineligible for the whole tie. He would not make another appearance for Guyana until 2019. St Vincent prevailed on away goals after a hectic tie that finished 6-6 on aggregate. Danns netted twice in the second leg but his unavailability for the first leg was decisive.
Just over a year later, qualifiers for the 2017 Concacaf Gold Cup would also feature off-field drama, as the night before their final game against Jamaica senior players went on strike in an effort to get the GFF to pay them monies owed to them from the 2012 relocated game against Mexico. A loss to Jamaica meant the side would not qualify for the Gold Cup and Shabazz resigned from his position as coach.
The newly-elected GFF president Wayne Forde, determined to one day have Guyana qualify for a Gold Cup, looked abroad for the man he wanted to lead that charge.
Despite holding a Uefa Pro coaching license, Michael Johnson had resigned himself to never managing a team after numerous rejections. The former Birmingham and Derby player had a settled role as ambassador for Derby County and was, at least on the surface, content. That abruptly changed when, on a coach trip with Derby in 2018, he received a call from Wayne Forde, asking him to apply for the role of Guyana head coach, on the recommendation of Jason Roberts, the former West Brom, Wigan and Blackburn forward who was working for Concacaf.
“At first I thought it was a wind up... when they told me I had the job I nearly fell out of my chair,” Johnson told the media after his appointment in June 2018. Johnson, in an ambitious move, would declare he had two targets for Guyana: to qualify for the Gold Cup in just over a year and take the team into the top 100 of the Fifa rankings once again. In an unusual arrangement, Johnson would not live in Guyana, but work from England alongside his Derby County commitments. With the GFF investing heavily in the senior programme, Johnson was afforded a large backroom staff including former Spurs academy coach Taff Rahman as assistant. For the first time, a head of sports science and a performance analyst were employed as Guyana embraced modern technology.
The Concacaf Nations League qualifiers, which also served as Gold Cup qualifiers, begun in September and Guyana took on Barbados at home, disappointingly drawing 2-2. An expected 8-0 win against Turks and Caicos was followed by a 2-1 loss to neighbours French Guiana. Guyana’s dream of a maiden Gold Cup was over, or so it seemed.
In December 2018, with fans still questioning the effectiveness of the new foreign coach, a Concacaf press release landed out of the blue. It was concise but had huge ramifications: the England- born Barbados striker Hallam Hope was discovered to be ineligible for the side and therefore Guyana were awarded a 3-0 forfeit win. A national side hampered continually by administrative blunders had been given a lifeline by one.
This meant that a win against Belize in March would secure Gold Cup qualification. Johnson begun to prepare. A major recruitment drive started; Keanu Marsh-Brown of Newport County and Callum Harriott of Reading joined the side captained by Sam Cox. Yet among some fans in Guyana there were reservations: only one player in the starting side for the Belize game was born in Guyana and along with a coaching staff based abroad, many felt there was a disconnect between the fans and the team. Social media debates between Guyanese fans begun to focus on this issue more than anything else.
Guyana eventually prevailed 2-1, Danns and the US-based striker Emery Welshman scoring the goals. The joyous tears shed by players at the full-time whistle showed just how much it meant to them. Guyana had reached their first-ever Gold Cup and to see the emotional scenes post-game from the players highlighted just how ridiculous it was even to consider them as foreign. “Whether it’s foreign-based, local-based, I don’t care whatever-the-hell based, we are one country, one team, one dream!’’ Sam Cox said, a call for unity as the side reached uncharted territory.
The 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup provided a dream opening game for Guyana: against the hosts USA, who were looking to make amends for missing out on the 2018 World Cup. In a shock move, Johnson called up Matthew Briggs to the side after a four-year hiatus during which he had dropped down to play semi- professionally for Maldon & Tiptree while also working as a bricklayer. For Briggs, the Gold Cup was a chance to resurrect his promising career.
With Guyana’s domestic league not proving to be an outlet in developing international-quality players, there was a distinct lack of local talent in the 23-man Gold Cup squad, which travelled with hope of an upset against a USA side who had just lost warm-up games to Jamaica and Venezuela. In front of a sold-out Minnesota crowd, Guyana’s players united as the national anthem played, and a nation united. A cagey opening soon became US domination, as Guyana struggled to supply Marsh-Brown. The absence of MLS midfielder Warren Creavalle , a key player for the Golden Jaguars who had been ruled out of the tournament due to injury, was keenly felt as Guyana lost 4-0.
The next game against Panama saw Danns convert two penalties to score Guyana’s first-ever Gold Cup goals, in itself an achievement despite the eventual 4-2 loss. Danns, 36 years old, was proving to be the standout player in the side and indeed Guyana’s all-time greatest player, scoring in almost every competitive game he had played since joining the team in 2015. A final group game against Trinidad & Tobago was a dead rubber as both sides were already eliminated, but bragging rights were at stake and the game finished 1-1, with Danns bagging his third goal of the tournament, a brilliant curling effort, and making the Concacaf group stage best XI in the process.
As Guyana’s players flew back home, they could reflect on a creditable debut performance which saw them finish third in the group and score three goals. While they could not compete with Concacaf’s finest, it was the first stage in a long- term plan to see the side consistently qualify for the Gold Cup and possibly even make the World Cup finals after expansion to 48 teams in 2026. The GFF now needs to look at local development and implement strategies which will see local players challenge for spots in the national team on a regular basis, although this will undoubtedly take many years. The current domestic league does not allow players to have full-time footballing careers and that makes it unlikely they will be able to reach an international standard in an increasingly competitive region.
With recent history dominated by off-field drama and politics, Guyana’s story is a complex one filled with many characters and plot twists. It is also a story of perseverance and overcoming obstacles, and by qualifying for the Gold Cup the biggest achievement has been the spotlight thrust on not only the football team, but the nation itself, a hidden land of beauty and promise. As Cox said after Guyana’s Gold Cup adventure ended, it was a campaign of, “Passion, pride and determination all to put this country on the map. Now you know our name. We are Guyana.”